When it comes to property management, there is not a more important skill than being able to de-escalate situations with unhappy tenants. And to learn this skill, there is no better resource than Dale Carnegie's fantastic book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
When a tenant is angry about a maintenance issue, disputed charge, deposit refund (or lack thereof) or any other issue that you can think of, the natural response is to argue with them and defend your position. If they raise their voice, the natural response to raise your voice in return. If they insult you, the natural response is to at least defend yourself and perhaps go so far as to insult them back. Tit for tat and on and on it goes.
This is nothing more than escalating a situation.
The key that Dale Carnegie discusses at length, is to do the opposite of what feels natural. If they're mad at you, don't get defensive and certainly don't get mad. Flip the script and sympathize with them. I don't mean to blame yourself or cave in to their demands, I merely mean to sympathize with them over the problem. We had a receptionist a few years back who was great at this. Someone would call in angry about a maintenance issue and she would respond as follows,
“Oh no! That's awful. Let's make sure to get that taken care of. Could you please describe the problem so I can work up a maintenance order? Thank you.”
Or something like that. But notice, that she puts us and the tenant on the same team; “Let's make sure to get that taken care of.” The enemy is the maintenance problem. We are the tenant's ally. Why would they be mad at their ally?
In the same way, it's important not to fall into the temptation of avoiding contact with people who are mad at you. This is natural, but the worst way to deal with a situation. We had a mold issue that was actually rather small, but it blew up all out of proportion and we ended up letting the tenants out of their lease because the situation dragged on to the point that the tenants were beside themselves with anger. Why did they get so angry? Well the mold issue was part of it, but we resolved it relatively quickly. The big problem was our property manager at the time refused to call them back, so in their minds, she might as well have told them she couldn't care less about them and wouldn't even care if they died of some terrible pulmonary disease. In reality, she was just nervous to call because she was embarrassed about the situation. Don't let that happen to you. Maintain contact even when it's uncomfortable to do so.
With regards to collections, deposit refunds and things of that nature, the key is to be fair but firm while also having good documentation. If you can point to the documentation, you can explain why they owe what they owe. Don't get mad. Don't match their tone. Empathize with them (be on their side as much as possible), i.e. “I know it's a tough situation, but this is the amount it cost to do the repairs” or something to that effect. Indeed, make something else the enemy, like the lease. I.e. “we have to follow the lease, and the lease mandates that we charge these expenses.” You are on their team, but the rules dictated by the lease (or the owner or the law) are the enemy in this situation.
This principle also goes with employees, vendors, sellers, buyers, lenders and partners as well as our friends and family. It's amazing how quickly someone will calm down when you don't match their anger and empathize with them. There's even a scientific term for it called social proof. Basically, people will generally match their surroundings. If you are calm, they may not start calm, but they will almost certainly become calm.
It is so much easier to reach a win/win solution when everyone is calm and feels like they are all on the same team. So make sure to go about tenant relations that way.
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